By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
n Nov. 29, 1980, the University of South Florida opened a sparkly new sports and entertainment arena. Price tag? $12 million. First music act? Alice "Welcome to My Nightmare" Cooper. Little did anyone know that 32 years later, the Sun Dome would look, and smell, like a concrete sweat sock.
There have been nips and tucks to the ol' joint over time, including an $8 million roof in 2000. But for the past three decades — a span in which the college's state and national stature has risen academically and athletically — the school's architectural focal point has remained largely unchanged.
Until this week.
When Elton John fans pull up to the Sun Dome on Friday for a grand reopening concert, the changes to the venue will be constant and drastic — $35.6 million in candy for the eye, ear and, seeing as how many of the seats have new padding, the fanny.
Oh, and don't forget the nose. The joint finally smells good.
It starts with the exterior paint job — new colors: terra-cotta, green, sand — with sky-high pictures of USF athletes. (The men's and women's basketball and volleyball teams play here.)
Then there's the guts: The building's mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems have been all replaced. There's a new sound system for sports (musicians rely on their own amps). There's a new Bulls shop, new ticket office, new lighting, plus 10 new loge suites for muckety-mucks.
And don't underestimate that Global Spectrum is now running the venue and will be extremely active and competitive in booking big entertainment acts to the site, which seats 11,000 for concerts.
But that's not all — here are five other cool features in the refreshened Sun Dome, including one nice touch that's the first of its kind in the nation. The changes will probably be more noticeable for sporting events, but the concert crowd will definitely notice the upgrade as well.
ARENA CLUB AND THE STUDENT CLUB: Behind a retractable glass wall, the Arena Club is a high-end space running the length of the venue with a full-scale bar, a bistro and, of course, "tons of TVs," according to Sun Dome general manager Trent Merritt. Anyone with a ticket to the Elton John show will be allowed in, although preshow VIP-event tickets can also be purchased. As for the Student Club, there's never been something like it at a major athletic arena — a slick event-level lounge for college kids complete with food, beverages and TVs, plus direct access to the student seating section in the main hall.
CONCOURSE: At the "old" Sun Dome, there was never any there there. You parked, watched a game or a concert and left. No vibe, no buzz. Merritt says the concourse is now a "unique aspect" of the building: new concession stands, enhanced graphics, a timeline of the school running along a wall. Between the Arena Club and the concourse, you can now actually "hang out" before a show.
LED VIDEO SCOREBOARD AND LED VIDEO "RIBBON": The dome's new four-sided center-hung LED scoreboard is the crown jewel of the refurbishment, but alas, it won't be illuminated during concerts. But the LED video screen "ribbon" boards on both sides will be flashing during Elton. At games, there will now be 10 video screens total. "They'll combine to make a great production," Merritt says.
A WHOLE LOT OF FLAT-SCREEN TVS: To be exact, 104 of those suckers hung all over the venue, from Elton John's dressing room to the media center to the new concourse. Heck, with all those TVs, who needs the actual event!
NEW MEDIA CENTER, LOCKER ROOMS AND ARTIST SUITES: Okay, most concert ticket holders won't see this stuff, but Elton and I will. "There's been a huge upgrade in our 'back of the house' rooms," Merritt says. The locker rooms have been totally redone and "can now be used as a good recruiting tool." The artist dressing rooms will have leather furniture, private bathroom and, yes, more TVs. And the Media Center will have a kitchen prep area, hardwired ports and a giant postgame press conference space.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.